Chiwetell Ejiofor as Bishop Carlton Pearson in “Come Sunday”
The 2018 biopic Come Sunday traces the story of Bishop Carlton Pearson’s journey from being the darling of the American Pentecostal scene to his position today. He now teaches Universalism, a doctrine which states that nobody needs saving because everyone goes to Heaven. The movie speaks to a vital question for anyone seeking to understand and follow the teaching of Jesus.
In the movie Carlton’s journey away from hellfire preaching begins when he is confronted with the death of people close to him, and the deaths of people far away, on whose eternal destiny he could have zero impact. Where, he asked, was the love or justice in God bringing babies into the world, into civil war, violence and famine in Rwanda, only to live lives of desperation and agony, never to hear of or know of the love of Jesus, only to die and be consigned to eternal conscious torment in hell. How is that consistent with a just or compassionate God? If we can feel compassion for people and see the injustice and wrongness of such a story- line, what about God?
That’s a pretty good question isn’t it. Are we really more compassionate than God?
Firstly no Christian needs to accept the idea that anyone is born damned. Though popularized by Augustine as the doctrine of “original sin” – a teaching officially taken up in Catholic circles, and though championed within reformed circles through neo-Calvinism’s doctrine of “total depravity,” the idea of all babies being born damned is in fact not the teaching of the wider church.
Those two teachings were not the teaching of the Church during the vital period when the central tenets of the faith were being clarified and formed as the creeds of the Church. Those two related doctrines, however popular they may have been in certain parts of the church, do not express the faith of the Undivided Church.
Augustine of Hippo – 354-430
I go further into this in my post and podcats “Beauty, sex and babies – and what Augustine got wrong” and “The Story of Us and what the Fall wasn’t” and “Did Jesus have a sinful nature and what the Fall wasn’t.”
If Jesus offers life then what about those who never hear? And, equally importantly, what about those who only ever hear a nonsense version of the teaching of Jesus, a telling of his message so garbled and distorted that any sensible person would reject it? Where does that leave them? The god rejected by most of the people I know who make that choice are rejecting a version of God I would also reject!
Where is the love in a God who says, “You have free choice but if you make the wrong choice I will kill you and then torment you for eternity”?
Where is the love in a God who says, “I love you and I want you to freely love me. But if you don’t I will kill you and torment you forever. Now come on, love me!”
Something is wrong with that picture!
The late, great Revd Dr Billy Graham
The late, great Billy Graham, a man for whom I have enormous respect and affection, when confronted with the question of those who do not hear, would generally stick to what he knew – that if you have a choice for or against Jesus, the evidence and the logic is persuasive to choose “for.” But Dr Graham would say for those who never hear, that he had to leave that matter with God. Because how could we know how God judges those who never hear?
But what if we could know? What if we have some facts to inform us?
NOWHERE WITHOUT TESTIMONY
A great book to read for some facts – if you haven’t already read it – is missiologist Don Richardson’s book “Eternity in their Hearts.” In the book Richardson invites missionaries to listen more carefully to the language and layers of story and belief that they find in the culture of those they reach. They will often find that God has not left himself anywhere without testimony. (Acts 14:17) In his preach to a Greek philosophical society in Athens, Apostle Paul says:
“What you worship as something unknown I will explain to you: The God who made the world and everything in it does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands – as if he needed anything. Rather it is he who gives people life and breath and everything else. From one person he made all people, for them to inhabit the whole earth, determining times and places for them. He did this so that people would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him – though in reality he is not far from any one one of us. In fact it is in Him that we live and move and have our being – as some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
Apostle Paul affirms what the Greek poet had rightly discerned. He affirms their worship of the unknown God (however partial that may have been)and now wishes to add to their knowledge of that God. Even within the cultural mishmash and sometimes idolatries of C1st Greek society – a culture against which Christianity would frequently clash – Paul found that God not left himself without testimony. So in Athens Paul begins his conversation with the knowledge they have and the response they have made in their culture and worship.
Writing to the Christians in Rome, Apostle Paul argues that there is a heap anyone can know about God if, with an open heart and mind they look at the wonders of the planet and the universe. (Rom 1:20)
“Eternity in their Hearts” gathers together some wonderful studies of historical, factual cases in which Gospel missionaries reached remote peoples whom God had clearly prepared to recognize the Gospel of Jesus Christ when it was brought to them. Their preparation came from a reasoned response to what they could see in the world around them and what was seen prophetically by their own elders, prophets and wise people. As a result when the missionaries arrived and explained the Gospel these people groups accepted the Gospel readily and in astonishingly high proportions.
Check out the incredible story of William Marcus Young, the Wa People and the White Pony in Don Richardson’s “Eternity in their Hearts.”
Cases include the Karen of Myanmar, in China and India, the Kachin, the Lahu, the Wa, the Shan and Palaung people, the Kui, the Lisu, the Nago and the Mizo people. In some cases the details known concerning the coming missionaries were so remarkable and specific that there was no doubt that God had prepared the people directly.
SAVED BY FAITH
Clearly these people were looking and waiting in hope for their salvation – in exactly the way that the New Testament speaks about godly people who, though they lived before Jesus, looked to God in hope with a saving faith. Hebrews 11 includes a great litany of such people whose relationship with God was clear, affirming their presence around us as a great cloud of witnesses. (Gal 3:5-9, Heb 11:1-12:1)
Their stories illustrate the reality of saving faith among those who have not heard. They represent a strand within the Biblical teachings that show that in some cases people have a relationship with God that is then revealed by how they respond if and when they hear the Gospel. (Jn 1:43-51, Jn 14.7, Acts 10:34)
Melchizedek and Abraham by Juan Antonio de Frías y Escalante (C17th)
In a similar vein, Melchizedek and Noah were at times controversial figures for traditional Judaism because they revealed people who were in relationship with God outside of God’s revelation through the line of Abraham and Moses. Melchizedek reveals that he is in relationship with God by his response to God’s friend Abraham. As Jesus said “He who accepts the sent one accepts the sender.” (Mt 10:40, Jn 13:20, Lk 10:16) Noah reveals that he is in relationship with God by his response to specific instructions from God. (Gen 6:9-22)
In the Gospel Jesus says “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” (Jn 14:15-31) In these and other ways the Scriptures reveal that saving faith is not just a matter of verbal or intellectual assent.
A MORE INCLUSIVE GOSPEL
Jesus talks about two sons whom a father asks to plough a field. One son says “Yes” the other says “No.” The son who verbalizes his “Yes” actually does nothing. No real ploughing occurs. But the son who says “No” decides of his own accord to plough the field after all. “Which one,” Jesus asks, “did the will of the father?” Answer: the one who actually ploughed the field. The one who said, “No.”
This is a very significant teaching. For here we have a picture of a person who has said “No” to God but who is doing the will of the Father – keeping his commandments! Similarly, Matthew 25 records Jesus’ teaching on the judgment of our lives. In his story we hear that the righteous were people being sent to an eternal reward who did not even know they had been serving and pleasing God. Yet this is what they had done. Through their love and care for others. And they were eternally rewarded for it.
John affirms the same vision of things in his first letter when he teaches that the one who lives in love lives in God. (I Jn 4:7-8, 20) These teachings of Jesus and his apostles offer a wider and more inclusive vision of the Kingdom of God.
So we are offered a more inclusive picture, for a more open view of salvation within the very pages of Scripture. In fact the Gospels and New Testament have plenty of content that affirms a wider aspect on the story of salvation than church-teaching often chooses to highlight. The texts and implications are clearly there. They’re just not often focused on.
To return to the poor, desperate, starving and innocent children in Rwanda’s genocide and famine – for example – consider Jesus’ famous Beatitudes: “Blessed are the Poor. Blessed are the Poor in spirit. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn. They will be comforted. Blessed are the meek. They will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice for they will be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful. They will be shown mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart. They will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers. They will be called sons of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Right there is the wider inclusion. If Jesus really meant that, if he meant those words as they sound, then right there is the answer to the question that so gripped the attention of Carlton Pearson. When I think about those desperate, war-starved babies, poor, mourning, persecuted, crying out for justice, for me Jesus’ beatitudes give a clear answer.
HELL, YES! BUT NOT AS WE KNOW IT
So what about sin and hell? The Church’s traditional teaching is that God, being holy, has a problem with what he considers “sin” and that if you don’t repent of it and receive his free gift of forgiveness he will punish you with eternal conscious torment in the fires of hell. However the Church’s tradition of hell and the teaching the New Testament are not the same thing.
Believers have to deal with the idea of “hell” because it is in Jesus’ teaching. The idea of hell is absent from the Old Testament. Christians have beliefs about hell precisely because Jesus raised the subject. To be a little more precise, Jesus references two places or states. Once he refers to “Hades” – the invisible realm – the realm the dead occupy after dying. It is not an eternal state or a judgment it is simply the dimension people’s spirits occupy after they die. That’s what “hades” means.
The rest of Jesus’ teachings are about Gehenna. Gehenna was the tip, the dump, the refuse heap, the landfill outside of the city. It was the end of the line for anything useless, dead or putrid. Anything you didn’t want to keep around you would throw there. It was a perpetually smoldering pit, full of worms. Literally. It’s just south of Jerusalem.
Jesus’ warnings about sin are not to do with keeping arbitrary rules in order to avoid getting punished by an angry God. Rather we could express it in terms like these: “Stay away from sin. Avoid it. Get it out of your life or it will ruin you. If you pursue sinful ways you will waste your life. You’ll end up on the scrap heap in pain, and tormented by remorse and anguish.” That’s the fate which the metaphor of gehenna, with its weeping and gnashing of teeth, warns about.
WHAT’S SIN GOT TO DO WITH IT?
It’s not about punishment for sin. It’s about the punishment that sin brings all on its own. Adultery will ruin your life. Anger, hate or an ethic of revenge will waste and eat up your life. Greed and envy will strangle your life and destroy your soul. Jesus came teaching in order to save us from sin and its consequences. In so doing he demonstrates God’s love towards us. He doesn’t want to see us wasted and on the scrap heap of life. He came to save us from all those things that can take a human life to that awful, unhappy place.
So the message is not that God has an arbitrary problem with sin – therefore we have a problem. Put simply, God has a problem with sin ruining people’s lives. So much so that he came as Jesus to save us from its effects.
When we portray sin as something that is, by God’s own choice, a problem purely to God we trivialize the significance of sin for human beings. Accordingly, Jesus’ teachings on gehenna speak dramatically of sin’s dangers for us – in this life. And the NT letters emphasize the implications of that on an eternal plane.
Beyond the ruination of your material life – if that were not problem enough – what are the spiritual implications of sin, that would make God so concerned for us? Let me suggest on the basis of what the NT reveals, if your life is fueled by hate it is, one could say, mathematically impossible for you to live in God. In him there is no darkness at all. (I Jn 1:5) If your life is driven by anger or hatred, that life cannot participate in the goodness of God – until and unless that sin is taken away. This is the perspective that fills the first letter of John, for instance.
Consider the NT’s imagery and language of exclusion from God, of separation from God, of being disintegrated (to render the NT word very closely) to describe what happens when we have built our lives with rubbish and our lives come to be judged. These texts are scattered through the NT letters, issuing inescapable and sobering warnings concerning eternal destinies. They cannot be easily dismissed. Jesus’ own words represent what he clearly intended to be a grave warning about consequences. Gehenna was, in Jesus’ teaching, a fate to be avoided at every possible cost. (Mt 18:7-9, Jn 13:22-30, I Cor 3:12-15, II Thess 1:9)
However the sober warnings of the NT are simply not the same as the Church’s traditional teachings on hell – which promise a punishment eternal, conscious torment (ECT) for non-believers, consigned to perpetual anguish in hellfire as their punishment, while believers live it up in heaven. Those teachings convey God as saying, “Believe in me – and Jesus. Love me freely, voluntarily, or I will torture you for eternity.” An infinite punishment for a finite crime. Hardly an image of love and justice!
Augustine was the first theologian to attempt to argue for ECT from the Bible. But it was not how the Apostolic Fathers read the Bible. Origen, Irenaeus, and Athanasius, whose teachings are foundational to some of our most fundamental concepts in Christianity, were not proponents of ECT. Significantly ECT is not the teaching of the undivided church. It is a narrow doctrinal strand whose rejection puts you in some pretty important company! But more importantly ECT is not grounded in a careful reading of Scripture – as was emphasized for me by a twenty year correspondence with a committed exponent of the doctrine.
Back in the 90’s I entered into a correspondence with the renowned preacher R.T.Kendall. RT is a strong proponent of the traditional church doctrine of ECT. I wrote to ask where he found support in the NT for this doctrine. By my reading, a large number of texts speak in the terms I’ve outlined above – if taken on their plain reading.
Only two texts clearly favour the traditional church doctrine of ECT.
One is an apocalyptic text in Revelation – portraying in pictorial language the fate of the devil and those who worship the beast. It is a picture of consignment to an everlasting inferno to “be tormented with fire and burning sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever, without relief…” (Rev14:10-11)
The other is a verse which speaks of the death of the wicked and their decomposition by an eternal fire and an immortal worm who never expires and never tires of his gruesome assignment, causing its victims to “weep in pain forever.” The context is a prophetic warning to nations that would go to war against the people of Israel. The text occurs in the Apocrypha. (Judith 16.7)
Would you take either of those passages literally? Would you build an entire doctrine on them? It seems to me that these two texts – one apocryphal and both highly figurative – hardly amount to a foundation for a dogma. All the other texts in the NT concerning eternal destinies could be understood in more than one way. One would have to read the traditional doctrine in.
At first RT referred me to some teaching tapes where he referenced these open texts. Like many ECT proponents he drew on appearances of the word “hell” in the translation, or the use of the word “gehenna” in the Greek text, or any reference to irreversible consequences (ie “eternal punishment“) as if that language automatically supports the traditional teaching of hell as being eternal conscious torment for those who die without faith in Jesus.
When I pointed out this jump in RT’s logic I was impressed by his response. “I need to think further about this,” he said. “I have a friend who is researching this very question for his PhD. I will have to put some further thought to it and get back to you when I’ve taken some time over the matter.”
So 20 years later we talked again. When we broached the topic once again RT told me that he still held the ECT position. Then he said, “If you only go on the plain reading of the NT texts you will not come away believing in ECT. You have to have an a priori belief in ECT before going to the Scriptures. Otherwise you simply won’t find it there.”
OK!! Don’t miss that!
I believe that Jesus came as a saviour because we need saving – not to tell us that everything is OK. Jesus came to save us from the consequences of sin – which are all too visible in our world – and to teach us to be reconciled with God. I believe his intention towards humanity and to all human beings is salvation. (II Pet 3:9) Jesus’ very name means “God who saves.“
I believe that God has left himself nowhere without testimony and that by responding to what ever testimony we know – loving God as best we understand and loving people as best as we know how to – we reveal our heart towards God; our relationship with him and his kingdom. This proof of relationship applies to any person, card-carrying Christian or not.
I would still stand with Billy Graham in saying to any person who has the opportunity to hear about Jesus that, given the evidence for Jesus and his resurrection and therefore for the veracity of his teaching and his claims of divinity, the logic is to go with him and then through him begin to perceive the realm of God, enter into it, become spiritually reborn, filled, made fruitful, accompanied and guided by Divine Spirit – All the Good Things He promises! (Jn3:3-8, Jn7:37-39, Jn 14:16-18,26, Jn 16:7-8,13-15) By my reckoning there’s no better invitation and motivation to go with Jesus than that!
In Jesus the NT reveals a bigger and better saviour than we often realize. And his teachings are wider and deeper, and very much less focussed on religion and church than we often allow. The movie “Come Sunday” dramatizes how the concern to keep strong the draw of people to institutional church-life, and a leaning to theological conservatism often go together.
What I’m outlining within the breadth of teachings of the NT is not universalism. Rather it is to highlight some of the more inclusive aspects of the Gospel than the Church has often emphasized.
THE CHALLENGE OF FRESH THINKING A.K.A. REFORM
The late, great Revd John Stott
In his later life international evangelical leader John Stott took the same view regarding eternal destinies as I have outlined above. Bravely he called for a more careful examination of the Scriptures to better define the Church’s teaching. He viewed the teaching of hell-as-ECT to be a church-doctrine that needed the principles of reformation theology brought to bear in order to get rid of it.
With all the decades of credibility that John Stott had built up, and never mind that he was calling people back to the Scriptures, many in the Christian world struggled to take him seriously or respond with fresh thought. The church scene can be one full of shibboleths. The censure that Carlton Pearson faced within the American Pentecostal and evangelical scene John Stott had to face on an international level. In fact the condemnation poured on John Stott was so fierce that he backed down.
GETTING BACK TO OUR ROOTS
The traditional framework of two alternative eternal destinies, heaven or hell, is built on the notion that we all are separated from God and need rescuing from that separation. Jesus’ parables of the kingdom (including the story of the two sons) along with his non-discriminatory patterns of grace and healing, suggest another picture. When the Apostle Paul wishes to clarify his concept of GOD when addressing an audience not versed in C1stCE Judaism, he says this:
“By GOD I mean the Source of the Cosmos and everything in it – the one in which/whom (auton) WE ALL live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17)
In that view of GOD there is no separation. Paul’s sermon goes on to say that as the Source of the Cosmos, GOD has no need of anything from us. In Paul’s view we are all connected with God. This reality needs to enjoyed through faith, love and thankfulness.
The Christianity which emerged in its imperial, institutional expression appears to have thrived on separation anxiety. “I am separated from God. How do I get back?” This fear-based religion disempowers the priesthood of all believers, pacifies and believer, empowers the institution and re-feudalizes the world through its religion.
The narrative of separation from God, followed either by heaven or hell, then frames the whole of Jesus’ life and teaching as a story of obedience vs sin, reward vs punishment, worship vs idolatry, salvation vs loss. The whole Gospel is then perceived as being about either gaining heaven or landing up in hell. But this is a terrible distortion. It is an out and out rejection of Apostle Paul’s teaching that WE ALL live and move and have our being in oneness with GOD – the Source.
The very first sermon with which Jesus toured, according to Matthew’s gospel, generally gets translated as, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”
If we translate those words according to their most fundamental root meanings, it emerges that Jesus was saying “[You can] change your life, your whole mentality because the ways and the amazing power of the whole realm of the Source are available to you!!” Jesus then went about demonstrating what those ways and that power looked like – an object lesson of fearless life in all its fulness. Life in union with the Source – whom Jesus called Father.
What an empowering vision! “I have done all this as an example for you,” Jesus says. “As the Father sent me, so I send you…Anyone who believes in me will do the same things I do. He will do even greater things!”
What an exciting invitation to life in all its fulness; life flowing with the love and power of The Source! Great sermon!
Accordingly when Jesus dispatched his emissaries he commissioned them to do four things:
- bless and befriend people of peace, enjoying their welcome
- stay with them, eating and drinking with them
- minister to their needs, bringing healing and freedom
- explain that the ways and amazing power of the Kingdom of God were available to them too
It is with these instructions that Jesus sends his 12 and his 72 into the region. No mention of saving their hosts from hell for heaven. No mention at all. In this sense, Jesus’ commission to his followers and his inaugural sermon about the availability of the “kingdom of God” are of a piece.
However, by contrast, the moment we introduce a backdrop of heaven vs hell, the tone of Jesus’ sermon changes radically. Suddenly “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand,” flips and comes across as a grave warning about the potential, irrevocable consequences of our disobedience!! This is just one example of how the heaven/hell framing can distort our reading of the texts.
Of course we are most likely to read the heaven/hell framework into any text where we find the word “judgement.”
This is not how many of the earliest Christians and their leaders understood the Gospel. Far from it. In fact a number – including foundational church fathers like Clement of Alexandria and Origen (the father of hermeneutics) held a tentative belief quite at odds with the heaven vs hell narrative. They believed in reincarnation.
Clement of Alexandria c150-215CE – a proponent of reincarnation
To the modern orthodox ear, the idea of reincarnation would seem incompatible with “Christian” ideas of heaven and hell. So how did those Church Fathers arrive on such different territory with the same Scriptures in front of them?
When Jesus asked his apostles who they thought he was, some referenced a popular belief among Jewish believers that Jesus was a reincarnation of one of the prophets or even of his cousin John the Baptist. The Gospels also reference the belief that John the Baptist was the reincarnation of Elijah. These are just two evidences that remind us that reincarnation was a belief floating around both in first century Judaism and in early Christianity.
It is very possible that the Church Fathers had gained their idea of judgement after death not from the Hebrew canon – where the idea is not developed at all – but from Plato. He had concluded, from various sources, that human consciousness survives our material death, then to experience a kind of life review – a judgement – before either returning to union with God or moving on to the next arena for our soul’s journey and existence.
Plato’s understanding is that our consciousness originates in the Source consciousness. (“In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.”)
Then our individual consciousness is incarnated in this material realm to wrestle with the great question of whether we can do love as a society of individuals moving in free choice. (“And the word became flesh and lived among us…full of grace and truth.”)
Then after this life our consciousness returns to the Source consciousness and/or moves on to other adventures. (“Father, now I am returning to you, back to the glory we enjoyed together before the foundation of the world.”)
I include those quotes from John’s Gospel to illustrate that Jesus’ story absolutely mirrors Plato’s understanding. Plato’s framing gives us the shape of the original and ultimate hero’s journey, lived so publicly by Jesus Christ.
This is why early theologians expected they could read Plato’s and Paul’s texts alongside one another. When they quoted the two writers together they meant it as a complement to Paul. They saw Plato’s view and that of the NT as compatible ways of saying that we can each expect – as consciousness/soul – to survive death then to go through a life-review.
Where some would see an incompatibility can be focussed in a verse in the NT book of Hebrews; in a verse, popularly translated into English as, “It is destined that man should die once and afterwards face judgement.”
Sounds like a classic warning about hell, right? The rub lies in the word “once.” We are destined to die “once.” Does that mean we each only get one shot at material life?
The word “once” would appear to separate the idea of this verse from any Platonic, Eastern or patristic ideas of reincarnation, right? In reality the Greek of Hebrews 9:27 is a little more interesting.
If you look at a range of translations you will begin to pick up that “once” is in reality an interpolation added by some English translators to what is there in the Greek. The original Greek runs like this, if you take the text word by word:
“…it is apportioned to people a time to die, then after this, judgement…”
People, there is no “once.”
This is why those church fathers who read the texts in their original Greek – and not in English translations – found no conflict between Paul and Plato in the question of what happens when we die, and found the room to wonder where our consciousness / souls go and what further adventures might await us beyond this life? They were able to consider this possibility because of the parallel of Jesus’ life to Plato’s hero’s journey and because they did not have a doctrine of heaven vs hell to trip them up! These were the beliefs in the original, Gospel roots of primitive Christianity. Maybe as believers we need to get back to our roots!
A CONCLUSION AND A CALL…
Bishop Carlton Pearson
So, in that light of all this discussion, I would like to give Carlton Pearson some respect for being true to his convictions at such great cost to himself – even if I don’t share every one of Carlton’s conclusions. My convictions are rooted in a careful reading of the NT scriptures which unpack the teaching of Jesus. I believe people need saving. I believe that Jesus came save people from ruining their lives – in this world and the world to come.
When a preacher preaches a message to their own disadvantage such a person merits a careful listen. So I would recommend a viewing of “Come Sunday” as well as a read of Carlton Pearson’s book “The Gospel of Inclusion” to encourage you to persist with the vital questions which Carlton, at great personal cost, has raised so courageously.